Swinging for the Fences

My new congregation is a haunted house.

No, I’m not referring to the bats that occasionally show up where they are least expected, although they do boost the adrenaline and induce a certain alertness in the staff. Rather this place is inhabited by the ghost of a long-time and long-gone pastor.

The guy served this congregation for forty six years, with such a powerful force of personality that the thirty four years of ventilation since he stepped down as senior pastor have not cleared the room of his pervasive aura. Seldom can three days go by without my running into a personal testimony of the hold that this dynamic and authoritative pastor had over this communion of saints.

One of the things I hear most often is how good a preacher he was. He preached the Word. He kept you listening. He never used a note.

Being a mildly competitive person, I cannot help but sometimes take this as a challenge. I feel the short hairs on my neck bristle, and a little voice inside me says, “You want me to go toe-to-toe with Reverend Schmiechel? Hey, I got some game! Bring it on!”

No doubt, you’ve spotted the dangers in this. First of all, I was not called into the ministry to outpoint a long-deceased pastor in some mythical oratory duel. I didn’t come here so that congregation members can brag, “My preacher can beat your preacher.” In fact, the last thing a preacher should do is call attention to his or her talents or efforts. 

I am called to preach for one reason only−to proclaim a message of love and redemption for the world. Anything I do to shine the spotlight on my preaching skills takes away from that message.

Trying to one-up a ghostly legend is a rather easy ego trap to avoid. But there is a similar one that is far more insidious. It is the desire to hit a home run in the sermon. The desire to preach the perfect sermon: a sermon so powerful and insightful and moving that it blows people right out of their seats and straight into the reign of God, from whence they shall never depart. I’ve never heard a preacher talk about this, but I have witnessed enough strong ego-drive in pastors to suspect that I’m not the only one who has been tempted to swing for the fences on occasion.

It may be a noble goal, perhaps, to preach a sermon that ushers in the reign of God; but it simply doesn’t work.

Top professional hitters know better than to try to hit a home run. They all say the same thing: “I was just up there looking for a ball I could drive.” They are all too aware that when you swing from the heels you’re likely to miss the ball completely, because you’ve gotten ahead of yourself. The first and most important task is to make contact with the ball. If you do that, what happens afterwards is likely to be good.

Sometimes I catch myself swinging for the fences. It usually happens after a particularly effective sermon. I want the next one to be even better and so I start looking for ways to knock this week’s lectionary text out of the park. Usually, after a couple of ridiculous swings from the heels, I come to my senses and realize that first task is to make contact.

With some shame and embarrassment, I throw away visions of grandeur, sit back and let God speak through the text. It works a lot better if I stay back on my heels and let God throw the text at me while I look for something I can connect with so my parishioners can connect with the text. If I do that, I have a much better chance of doing my job, which is to connect the congregation to the Gospel. When we make contact, good things happen.